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Sit back and ponder the meaning of rats, hand grenades and flying cows

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 06, 2012

  • Roger Wilkins with his Banksy artwork on the cider shed wall ... 'I don't really know what it's all about' Pictures: Richard Austin

  • Somerset cider-maker Roger Wilkins sits alongside some old barrels at his cider farm 'where the good stuff is kept'

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It could be described as one of the most iconic Westcountry places in the entire region. Wilkins cider farm at Mudgeley is remote and rough and ready, and that is according to its owner – which maybe is exactly the reason why it attracts more celebrities than perhaps any other single location west of Bristol.

Now the well-known cider-house is set to become even more famous thanks to the fact that it now boasts its own 12-foot high original Banksy work of art.

And if gazing at such a large indoor Banksy original could be overwhelming, there's a posh leather chesterfield-style sofa once owned by the comedian Frankie Howerd from which purchasers of fermented apple juice can admire the massive apple tree bearing hand-grenades as fruit.

Actually, there are two Banksy spray paintings that you can view from this celebrity sofa – and at Wilkins cider farm it might be advisable to sit down because you never know who might come through the open door next.

Hollywood film star Nicolas Cage apparently called in recently – and Rory Bremner turned up just a week or two ago in order to film the place and talk to owner Roger Wilkins who, it has to be said, is a great deal more enigmatic than his well-worn celebrity sofa.

"Sound as a pound, he was," shrugs Roger when he mentions television's best known impressionist. "Even if he did take the mickey out of my way of speaking."

Mr Bremner would have been on fertile ground – few other denizens of the Westcountry have an accent quite as rich and genuine as Roger's.

So why was the TV comedian at remote Land's End Farm, Mudgeley – a place you really have to want to go to – perched, as it is, at the end of a low hill that juts into the Somerset Levels?

"I dunno, exactly – they wanted to make some film or other," beamed Roger, offering me a glass of his finest.

Which was exactly the answer I was expecting. I have been calling at the Wilkins cider farm for the best part of a quarter of a century and am always amazed – and delighted – by the fact that everything there, including the memory of any visit, seems just a little bit vague, like some movie clip lifted straight from a happy dream.

That, of course, might be something to do with the jungle-juice on offer – and before we find out more about Banksy, Frankie Howerd, Nicolas Cage, Mick Jagger and all the other celebrities who find themselves down Mudgeley way, I'll say this… In my opinion Roger's traditional farmhouse cider is the best you can get. It's not refined – he doesn't do fancy single-apple editions aged in oak or anything like that – but it is a toothsome drink that tastes primarily, refreshingly and honestly, of apples.

So what about the world-famous art-work that has appeared on the rough stone wall of the old cider-house…?

"This bloke came and said he wanted to do some sort of painting and when I asked him what he wanted from me he said: 'All we want off you is a ladder'," Roger told me when photographer Richard Austin and I were admiring the spray-painting the other day.

"They put a great big piece of brown paper up there and then they just sprayed it through. I went off delivering cider at nine in the morning and came back at eleven – and there it was. I didn't have a clue what they were putting up there – all they had when I left was a big sheet of brown paper.

"I don't really know what it's all about," says Roger as we stand there supping and looking up at the giant painting. "There's rats. Well, they reckon rats used to get in cider, didn't em? And then they reckoned if you drank too much cider with the apple pips left in, t'would poison ee – so that's probably what the bottle of poison is for. I suppose the hand grenades is the apples. But I don't know what the cows is about."

Not, I grant you, the most erudite bit of art criticism ever preached – but accurate enough perhaps to describe the painting which you can see in our photograph. But if Roger fails in his critique, does he pass in the matter of provenance? Was the artist really the ultra-secretive Bansky, I asked him?

"All I know is that one of them has been in here before – the other one I didn't know – he might have been Banksy. But they reckon old Bansky don't do all the actual spraying anyway – he gets other people to do that.

"But you never know – they say he comes from Bristol and so do quite a lot of our customers – he might have a taste for my cider."

Which prompted me to ask about the farm's main product…

"I've been making cider 43 years this year – grandfather died when I was 21 and I shall be 65 this year," Roger tells me. "Father helped, but because we were milking cows back then, that was all the time he had – just to help. I actually learned me trade from my grandfather.

"And I've always done every thing by just taste – I don't test none of it. And it is popular – for the ones who like traditional farmhouse cider – if you like modern gassy cider, you aren't going to buy mine. The medium is popular, but I probably sell more dry," he added.

"We'm a bit rough and ready in here," said Roger looking around the dimpsey barns where, as you read these words, he'll be pressing this year's extremely poor crop of apples. "Rough and ready, except for the sofa. That actually came from Frankie Howerd's place – he lived at Compton Bishop, not far away. Some builders came in here for some cider and asked if I wanted this sofa – they'd done some work on the house and were asked to dump it.

"But it's a chesterfield – I s'pect he's worth a few bob. If it could talk – well, I s'pect he's seen some funny things... But I'd better not say too much.

"There's always a good laugh going on here," added Roger as he walked out past the helicopter rotor blade that was once left by some RAF pilots on a stag-night. "Everywhere else, the good old times have changed. It's all changed. All gone. Everything is clean and cultured nowadays. But not here, it's not – you've got to have it rough and ready."

Which, I put it to him, is exactly why his institution attracts so many big-name celebrities. They are people more than accustomed to an overly polished, luxury, five-star lifestyle – for them the gritty but jolly realities of the Wilkins cider-house might come as a welcome change.

"You might be right. We've Johnny Rotten in here, Dave Gilmour (of Pink Floyd fame), Jerry Hall, Joe Strummer, Nicolas Cage, Rory Bremner… Mick Jagger's been in – and his son and his daughter come in – but then, his brother lives just up the road.

"The biggest laugh we had was when Syd Little came in – he was really funny. He had a few drinks and he was telling jokes you couldn't tell on the television, like. The blue ones."

I suggested to Roger that he could probably make a fortune if he were to capitalise on this celebrity fame and create some sort of bijou restaurant or café to go alongside his scrumpy operation.

"I am never going to do that," he spat with disgust. "But I have got a website. I've never even looked at it, mind. Apparently they've got a song and everything on there – so they tell me.

"I shan't change nothing," he reiterated. "I've left everything the same as it was when I took it over years ago – and that's why people come here: to see proper farmhouse cider. We're right out on a dead end road – people have to want to come here. And they do.

"But we are never going to get rich off selling land for building out here. We shall never, ever, get built around and we shall always have it quiet and peaceful at night."

As for the cider, Roger has always inferred that it boasts health-food like properties. "I once went to an industrial cider maker, who brought out what they called scrumpy cider. I had a few and this PR woman came and warned me a couple of times. She said: 'I will warn you again this cider you are drinking is very strong'. I told her not to worry. In those days I could drink a couple of gallons no trouble – 16 – 20 pints a day – and I told her: 'It does ee good'…"

As I left Roger called after to me to pass on a free bit of wisdom: "My grandfather always used to say: 'Every man in a suit and tie will ruin the country'. Now look what these bankers have done. He also said: 'Live like a millionaire but don't die like one'. If you owe a million when you die, that's some other bug'er's worry'."

In Roger's case, the executors could always hack the Banksy off the wall.

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